When my wife and I bought the house we live in now, it offered the great virtue that it had been pretty fully renovated. I was burned-out from a series of renovations on previous houses, and I was in no mood to buy another work site. The downside, however, was that here and there the previous owners had introduced the absolute cheapest kitchen and bathroom installments money could buy.
Home Depot bottom-of-the-line pedestal sinks? Check. Rinky-dink faucets? Check. Contractors’ special floor tiles? Check. Insipid, catchpenny ceiling fans? Check. Chintzy, off-the-shelf kitchen cabinets? Check.
Little by little, as our virtual museum of soulless, dime-a-dozen schlock falls apart, we’ve been getting the opportunity to upgrade, to install cabinets and fixtures more worthy of the house.
Web designer and erstwhile architect Ben Gauslin took the exact opposite approach to pursuing his house. When he bought the 1890s bargeboard shotgun in Faubourg St. John a couple of years ago, he bought a massive project. The bones were solid, but everything else needed serious rethinking. The door-to-door flow of the “shotgun” house zigzagged. The rooms were cramped, and latter-day closet installations made matters worse. Nothing of the kitchen was worth preserving, and the back of the house was so rotten it had to be removed and rebuilt.
This allowed Gauslin to approach his renovation de novo.
It wasn’t that this troubled abode was all he could afford. No: He spent months looking to buy a classic New Orleans shotgun that was “in bad enough shape” that it needed a full renovation. “I absolutely wanted to be able to go all the way down to the framing,” he says.
Bringing the house down to bones and fleshing it out again allowed him to let his architect’s imagination off the leash. He re-established the shotgun flow of the house by lining up the doorways. He knocked out a wall and in so doing transformed his front room from a stuffy box into an open gallery. He moved the kitchen from the back of the house to the front.
Without question, the area in which his imagination roamed farthest was in the installation of his kitchen cabinets. In my house, the kitchen cabinets barely rise
to the level of an afterthought. In Gauslin’s house, they are the centerpiece.
Upon entering his house, you encounter a large, lofty living-dining space flanked by a prominent expanse of white cabinets and wooden countertops. From the large drawers under the counters, the installation extends upward past two rows of cupboards to a crown in which custom-made air conditioning registers nestle. It is a pronouncedly modern array of cabinetry, set against a protruding superstructure. Yet it stands within a pronouncedly historic context, where there are French doors and high molding on the opposite wall, a classic display window at the front and exposed bargeboard at the rear wall.
Gauslin, who practiced architecture for 10 years in Chicago, was mindful of the need to sensitively layer the modern over the historic. Several considerations drove his approach. First, “it doesn’t try to completely integrate,” he says. The modern side stays modern, and the historic sides stay historic. Second, he endeavored to “make the least impact on the house. It’s only one wall that has the new on it.” Third, he wanted to find a way to marry the new materials to the historic house. “That’s a big thing for me, understanding the materials – because that’s what really does determine the aesthetic.”
Integrating the central air conditioning system’s return air and registers into the structure was also important. “That’s a test of how an architect is thinking: how they handle the ductwork,” Gauslin says. “I want to limit the crap that’s on the ceiling.”
Another key aesthetic element was the reach of the cabinets. The room is 15 feet by 30 feet, with 11-foot ceilings. Throwing up a single row of cupboards would create a silly, squat look. By building a floor-to-ceiling structure that contains two rows of cupboards, the cabinets harmonize with the large space and draw the gaze upward. “It helps to reinforce the shape of the room,” Gauslin says.
Of course, getting to that upper row of cupboards is not easy. Gauslin says that for now he uses them for long-term storage but is considering adding a rolling ladder.
At night, the countertops are bathed in light from a series of lights under the cupboards. Another key feature: The drawers, rather than cabinets, under the countertops allow for easy access to their contents.
As for me, I’ll keep rummaging through the junkyard of pots and Tupperware in the cabinets that thrift built.
Sometimes it’s easier to just start over.